9 Black labor leaders and advocates reflect on the pandemic and what comes next

We asked nine leading Black labor organizers and policy advocates how to advance racial equity in the Covid recovery—and beyond. Here are their responses.

Image Credit: Scott Heins/Getty Images

As our second pandemic Labor Day approaches, Black worker leaders are determined to never again bear the brunt of a national crisis as they have under COVID.

The latest horror: four employees have now been killed as they tried to enforce mask mandates — all of them Black essential workers. Countless others have had to contend with anti-maskers’ racist slurs and other abuse — on top of their high risks of Covid exposure.

Black workers who lost their jobs during the crisis have also had a rocky return to employment. As of July, the Black unemployment rate was 8.2 percent, compared to 4.8 percent for white workers.

How can we make the recovery more equitable — and improve conditions for Black workers before the next crisis hits? We asked nine leading Black labor organizers and policy advocates for their views.

Many were hopeful about efforts to strengthen collective bargaining rights. This goal became even more urgent in a year when Amazon crushed a Black-led organizing drive in Alabama and pay for virtually all-white CEOs soared while frontline workers suffered.

These leaders pointed to many other opportunities for advancing racial economic justice, including supporting quality jobs in sectors where Black workers are disproportionately represented, from home care to restaurants to the Postal Service. The Democrats’ federal budget proposal includes significant investments in good care jobs while restaurant industry staffing challenges have increased leverage for a long overdue increase in the federal minimum wage for tipped workers.


Erica Smiley, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice

Jonathan Smith, New York Metro Area Local President, American Postal Workers Union

Allison Julien, organizer, National Domestic Workers Alliance/We Dream in Black

William E. Spriggs, Chief Economist, AFL-CIO

Josephine F. Kalipeni, Deputy Director, Family Values At Work

Dr. Sekou Siby, president and CEO, Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United

Tanya Wallace-Gobern, Executive Director, National Black Workers Center

Linda Burns, organizer/former worker, Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama

Renaye Manley, board chair, Chicago-based Worker Center for Racial Justice, and head of capital stewardship work for the Service Employees International Union

Erica Smiley, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice

Working people, especially Black and Brown working people, have disproportionately borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic. This will happen in the next pandemic, and in every crisis, until we finally give workers a seat at the table — because no one knows what workers need to protect themselves more than workers. And if our work is truly essential, then we deserve the right to negotiate with our employers for better pay and benefits, too.

The PRO Act will ensure that every worker can exercise their right to advocate for themselves at work without fear of employer retaliation, but some Senators have seemingly failed to learn the lessons Covid-19 taught us. Senators like Kyrsten Sinema, Mark Kelly, and Mark Warner still think corporations know how to — or even care to — protect workers. If that were true, the hundreds of thousands of co-workers we lost to Covid-19 would still be here today.

We can’t make the same mistakes in the next pandemic. We need to give workers the tools to advocate for themselves and to protect themselves. This is especially true for Black and Brown workers within traditionally exploitative industries, like food service, retail, and agriculture — all industries we now rightfully recognize as essential. The Senate can give workers these tools by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Until then, Jobs With Justice will continue to amplify the voices of the Essential Workers who need the Senate to protect their right to organize. You can visit ProActProud.org to learn more.

Jonathan Smith, New York Metro Area Local President, American Postal Workers Union

Since 1970 (the year of the Great Postal Strike), the post office has represented opportunity for many African American families that were denied an opportunity for higher education, due to lack of money or basic racism. The labor movement showed Black America the power of we over me. Unions helped fortify pride in the post office’s ability to provide a service to the American people that is efficient, cost effective, prompt and yes, essential. In exchange, African Americans were paid a fair wage and for the first time received an invitation to take part in the American dream: rising out of poverty, buying homes and cars, and providing a life for our children that we ourselves could only dream of.

It is essential in moving forward to protect the post office and to make it easier for workers to join unions and reestablish the middle class, which has always been the foundation America was built on. This country was made great by men and women in overalls — not men and women in suits.

Allison Julien, organizer, National Domestic Workers Alliance/We Dream in Black

In early March 2020, as reports of the Coronavirus in the US started spreading, the fear of the impact on marginalized communities grew for obvious reasons: inequality, low income, lack of access to affordable health care and structural racism.

National Domestic Workers Alliance/We Dream in Black in collaboration with the Institute for Policy Studies quickly responded to understand this impact and conducted a survey and produced a report “Notes from the Storm” of Black immigrant domestic workers in three Metropolitan areas: New York, Miami and Boston. We learned that 70% lost their jobs, 65% feared eviction and 49% had no safety net and the percentages are even higher for undocumented Black immigrants.

Black workers have experienced extreme job loss due to the pandemic and many who have returned to work are working for significantly lower wages. It is critical that higher wages, better workplace standards and job security for Black workers are included in any plans for economic recovery. The lack of income exacerbated existing issues and needs across Black communities, including access to affordable healthy food, lack of housing security and homelessness and lack of access to health care and other supports.

Black organizing is essential in fighting for systemic change that can transform Black communities and workers. The pandemic exposed the broken safety net and economic insecurity facing our communities. We have an opportunity to expand the safety net and support Black communities, including providing additional food banks, innovative partnerships with local restaurants to distribute surplus, and providing rent and loan forgiveness. The pandemic has taken an emotional and psychological toll on many Black communities and many people who are dealing with the trauma and grief and we need to ensure that Black communities have adequate access to mental health providers.

Additionally, access to affordable childcare, adult care, and care for people with disabilities is extremely important as many Black families are piecing together care for loved ones with little to no additional financial support.

This moment is key for us to rebuild the kind of world we need in order to thrive.

William E. Spriggs, Chief Economist, AFL-CIO

The pandemic shocked the economy in February 2020 and led to the greatest one month fall in payroll employment. Surprisingly, the percentage fall for Black workers was no worse than for white women, and not as dramatic as for Latino workers. Yet, true to a deep legacy of discrimination in hiring, the path back for Black workers has been slower than for others. Indeed, unemployment rates fell quickly for all others. The unemployment rates for high school dropouts remained below the Black unemployment rate for almost all the recovery so far.

Fortunately, Congress acted quickly to revise and revamp the safety-net by greatly expanding eligibility for unemployment insurance. The unemployment insurance system, which is a federal-state partnership is driven by state eligibility and benefit rules. It covers full-time workers, but has very weak coverage for part-time workers and for low-wage workers. The consequence is that the program perennially omits a larger share of Black unemployed workers. By building on the unemployment insurance systems benefits for local labor market emergencies (like Hurricane Katrina), Congress labelled their extension Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. This allowed benefits to reach some outside the system, like the self-employed, and those covered by unemployment insurance taxes, like the part-time and low-wage workers, who rarely get regular state unemployment benefits. While this lifted the share of Black workers who would normally get unemployment benefits, Black workers remained significantly less likely to receive unemployment benefits than white workers.

This fix to the unemployment insurance system ends in September. It needs to be extended, since the labor market is still months away from full recovery and Black workers are still struggling with long unemployment duration spells. But, a more comprehensive and permanent fix must be done to erase racial disparities.

And the slow recovery of Black employment points to our very weak enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Better educated Black workers have watched the employment prospects of less educated whites leap ahead of them.

Congress has much on its plate. It must complete President Biden’s now bi-partisan infrastructure legislation, and the more important “family plan” that provides the infrastructure to give the maximum number of workers access to work and boost women’s labor force participation. Still on the outside are the vital transformations of labor force fairness: raising the federal minimum wage and the restoration of workers’ voice in the economy, the newly rechristened Richard L. Trumka PRO-Act, to protect the right to organize for American workers. Over the last 21 years, Black workers have suffered the greatest collapse in their protection of collective bargaining agreement coverage, and the erosion of their minimum wage protection.

It is a full plate. But it must include a fix to the unemployment insurance program to give a full tailwind to recovery through the Fall. And ensure an unemployment insurance system that can meet the test of the next labor market downturn in a fairer and more equitable way.

Josephine F. Kalipeni, Deputy Director, Family Values At Work

The pandemic made the needs of Black workers more acute. How we respond will expose our hearts’ truest desires regarding dismantling racism and sexism. Industries that employ Black workers have been hardest hit and Black workers and caregivers, particularly those with chronic illness or disabilities, were further marginalized from economic stability for ourselves and our families. Still, the key opportunities for improving conditions for Black workers and caregivers remain the same.

We need a culture that believes that our full humanity is worthy of dignity and equity, and that we bring value to the work, not that the work makes us valuable. As we work towards that heart and mind change, we must move policies that narrow the gaps experienced by Black workers and caregivers, including equal pay, child care for children of all ages, paid family and medical leave, health care for all with a focus on home and community-based care, affordable housing, and a pathway to citizenship that does not exclude immigrants from needed public services.

These policies must be undergirded by the right for workers to unionize and to participate in an inclusive and fair democracy. We know these policies disrupt generational poverty experienced by Black workers. We will have to answer to future generations about how we responded when it became inarguably clear that our economy doesn’t work for those whose work makes everything else possible. By solving with and for Black workers, especially Black working women, we will create an economy that works for all.

Dr. Sekou Siby, President and CEO, Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United

The Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the significance for workers of color to have a collective voice in the workplace and the critical need to reform our labor laws as well as our political and economic systems. These broken systems have perpetuated historic crises of unemployment and low wages among workers of color, contributing largely to severe racial and economic inequity and thrusting these workers deeper into poverty.

While the majority of workers of color in the restaurant industry have essentially prepared our food, delivered them to our doorsteps or brought them to our table, helping our nation to remain safe and healthy while risking themselves, many of these workers still earn subminimum wages and have no access to paid leave and health care.

In states where the minimum wage for tipped workers still remains at $2.13 per hour, the poverty level of workers of color is nearly 11 percent, compared to 5 percent among white workers, according to the latest findings of the 2020 State of Restaurant Workers report. And in states with full minimum wage, Black restaurant workers only account for 3.5 percent and, in an overwhelming contrast, white restaurant workers in these states reported to be at 40 percent of the total workforce.

Our organizing efforts must focus on building power among workers of color, in order to change public policy and provide these hardworking families with key opportunities and improve their working conditions, rather than just delivering services to them and their communities. When workers of color are able to collectively stand up and have bargaining power, they have more leverage to negotiate wages and other terms of job protections, and their income, benefits and working conditions will certainly improve.

To advance our collective goal, our organizing must also be centered on serious alignment and coordination with worker advocates and partners working on the ground to achieve legislative reform and address long-standing racial and gender disparities in economic and health outcomes. We must continue to work diligently to have labor and economic policies that will eliminate subminimum wages, raise the minimum wage, and create equal employment pathways and increase job protections for all workers of color.

Tanya Wallace-Gobern, Executive Director, National Black Workers Center

Covid-19 hasn’t gone anywhere and we are a long way from returning to normal. We know, despite thousands of complaints from workers about unsafe working conditions from Covid-19, the agency issued very few citations for failure to protect workers. The lack of basic protections led to thousands of essential workers becoming infected with the coronavirus, and many have died as a result.

This continued health crisis is an opportunity for OSHA to get it right and expand the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

OSHA’s mission is to ensure safe and healthy working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing health and safety standards. It is time to expand the definition of health and safety beyond trips, slips and falls and include the ability to work free from racial discrimination, harassment, and violence. It has been documented that Black workers, who in attempts to enforce state mask mandates have had to endure racial slurs, being spat on, cursed at and as we witnessed in Georgia earlier this year being shot and killed. As a result, these workers suffer from depression, low self-esteem and a form of PTSD that clearly does not equate to a healthy or safe workplace. This is unacceptable for any American worker.

Linda Burns, organizer/former worker, Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama

“Black workers should work toward organizing around better wages, better working conditions and an increase of equal opportunities for all workers!”

A mother of five, Burns is currently attending nursing school but remains active in the effort to organize Amazon. After a majority of the Bessemer warehouse workers voted this past spring not to form a union, Burns denounced the Amazon CEO for the company’s severe intimidation tactics, saying at a press conference, “Bezos, you are wrong, you are wrong all the way around. You misled a lot of our people.”

In August, the National Labor Relations Board agreed with Burns and gave the union a chance at a revote.

Renaye Manley, board chair, Chicago-based Worker Center for Racial Justice, and head of capital stewardship work for the Service Employees International Union (opinions are her own)

The opportunity I see is in the corporate accountability space. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are the new “buzzwords,” but in most cases we see a failure to execute. Black workers are in a unique position to demand accountability, transparency, and a clear process around all the public pronouncements on DEI that have been made. Let me be clear, this impacts both current employees and the communities where the corporations are operating. Stakeholders, whether they work there or not, have a right to speak up.

This is a moment when there is a recognition of how structural racism has permeated our society We cannot let corporations say Black Lives Matter and then give money to decimate the voting rights of Black and Brown voters or fight against union rights or raising the minimum wage. We are in the position to call them out and to change behavior in a way that builds power and respect for our communities, and workers.


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